Career Profile: Why Pursue A Physician Assistant Career?

Nurse Anesthesiologist

Also Called: PA

Job Description:

Physician Assistants (not to be confused with Medical Assistants) work under the supervision of physicians, and provide a wide range of healthcare services. PAs are trained to provide a variety of services as part of a healthcare team, including (but not limited to) diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventative healthcare tasks; examining patients; ordering and interpreting laboratory tests and X-rays; taking patient medical histories; making diagnoses; and prescribing medications. PAs perform the tasks allowed under state law (their duties can vary on a state-by-state basis), which are delegated to them by the physician they work under. In some centers where fully licensed physicians are only available once or twice a week, particularly in rural and inner-city areas, physician assistants serve as primary caregivers. In these cases, they are required by law to consult with a supervising physician as needed or required by law.

Many PAs specialize their services, working in areas such as pediatrics, family medicine, emergency medicine, general surgery, and geriatrics, among others. Assistants who specialize in surgery handle preoperative and postoperative care of patients, and often work as first or second assistants during major surgical procedures.

Work Environment:

Depending on the place of employment, PAs can find themselves working a variety of hours and shifts. Those assistants in surgery will stand for long periods during the day, and will spend the majority of their day walking and on their feet. Schedules will vary depending on the hours of the supervising physician, and workweeks of PAs in hospital settings may include rounds on weekends, nights, or early morning shifts. Assistants working in clinics typically work a 40-hour week.

Education and Training Requirements:

All states require aspiring PAs to complete an accredited, formal education program. Most applicants to PA programs hold bachelor's or master's degrees, and the programs generally take two-years to complete. Many would-be PAs have backgrounds working in healthcare, often as in nursing but also in such fields as physical therapy or paramedics. Others received medic training as a part of military service.

Alongside classroom instruction, students receive supervised clinical training in a variety of settings, including surgery, emergency medicine, pediatrics, and others. PA students will work in a number of these settings (called "rotations") under physician supervision, and oftentimes clinical training leads to permanent employment.

Salary Range:

Salaries generally vary depending on specialty, setting (hospital or physicians' offices), geographical location, and years of experience. The median annual earnings of PAs were $64,670 in 2002, with some earning as much as $90,350.

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, first-year graduates earned a median income of $63,437 in 2003; those who worked full-time in clinical settings earned an average of $72,457.

Job Outlook:

Good to excellent. The expansion of the health-care industry as the population ages bodes well for careers as physicians' assistants. Additionally, because PAs are well-trained, productive, and cost-effective, private physician practices and hospitals are expected to employ more PAs to provide care - PAs oftentimes can take the place of physicians during routine duties and procedures. Opportunities are especially good in rural and inner-city clinics, but PAs will also find a number of jobs in hospitals, academic medical centers, public clinics, and prisons.

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